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May 18: Begin Comes to Power

May 18, 2011
Menachem Begin of the Likud Party became the sixth prime minister of Israel on this date in 1977, ending three decades of dominance by the Labor Party and by the original generation of Ashkenazi settlers and immigrants. (Though Begin was a Polish Jew, he was favored by the Mizrachi, who accurately saw the Labor Party as elitist and biased against “Eastern” Jews.) Begin had been a leader of the Irgun and a terrorist against British rule in Palestine. In the 1950s, he led the opposition against the acceptance of German reparations for the Holocaust. A territorial maximalist, Begin was an avid supporter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — yet he signed the Camp David peace treaty with Egypt and withdrew Israel from the Sinai Peninsula, which had been captured from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War. Begin did not, however, fulfill the Camp David agreement’s side agreements regarding the Palestinians, and in 1982, following an active period of Palestinian terrorism, he authorized the Lebanon War, in which Israel pursued the PLO deep into Lebanon and permitted the Sabra and Shatila massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Christian Falangists. Begin was misled by Ariel Sharon about the goals and scope of that war, and went to his death in 1992 regretting it. Shortly before his retirement in 1982, Begin set in motion the massive emigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1978. “The hour of decision has arrived. You know what I have done, and what all of us have done. to prevent war and bereavement. But our fate is that in the Land of Israel there is no escape from fighting in the spirit of self-sacrifice. Believe me, the alternative to fighting is Treblinka, and we have resolved that there would be no Treblinkas.” —Menachem Begin